Asbestos: What’s the issue in HE?

It’s been 36 years since the HSE introduced the asbestos clearance indicator. But what have we been doing as an industry since then?

In recent years, the dangers of asbestos exposure in educational facilities has been well-reported in the media. Multiple white papers have been authored championing the need for a full review of the current asbestos regulations and industry practices to mitigate the risks to teachers, pupils, and the environment. But why are we waiting for regulation to catch up with science?

Shocking Statistics

Last year, think tank Respublica estimated there to be around 6m tonnes of asbestos across 1.5 million buildings in the UK, with a staggering 80% of UK schools containing this lethal carcinogen.

A freedom of information request was sent to 106 universities across the country last year. The vast majority (86 per cent) of those that responded said asbestos was present in the fabric of their buildings.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported 5000 asbestos related deaths each year and predicts a continued rise of reported mortality rates in the coming years. You might be wondering why we are continuing to see rises in asbestos-related deaths if we are all working towards compliance.

The issue is largely with the misuse and misunderstanding of the HSE Clearance Indicator.

What is the HSE Clearance Indicator?

The HSE clearance indicator is the determined level of acceptable asbestos fibres in a given amount of air. All European countries have an accepted asbestos clearance indicator which is determined and enforced by their regulation body.

In 1984 the HSE introduced the current asbestos clearance indicator, 0.01f/ml, as a notionally safe ambient level of asbestos fibres in the UK. But what does notionally safe mean when it comes to asbestos exposure?

The clearance indicator (0.01 f/ml) was intended to indicate that an environment was safe to occupy following asbestos removal works and is used in the final stage of the four stage clearance process (HSE Asbestos: The analysts’ guide for sampling, analysis, and clearance procedures, HSG 248).

The clearance indicator is described to be a ‘transient indication of site cleanliness [and] not as an acceptable, permanent environmental level’ (HSE, HSL/2001//11, A2.2.6 Interpretation of clearance air monitoring). Despite this, duty holders and employers continue to regard the clearance level indicator as notionally safe.

What’s The Issue?

This clearance indicator has remained the same for the past 36 years in the face of ample evidence demonstrating that this level of exposure remains unsafe, and the common misuse of the indicator.

Whereas our European counterparts and closest neighbours have introduced far stricter controls in recent years, the UK has not.

The Netherlands updated its occupational exposure limits to 0.002 f/ml in 2014 with the intention of lowering it even further to 0.0003 f/ml in the future. The reason for these countries introducing tighter controls to their clearance indicator levels is due to continued rises in asbestos-related disease cases and mortality rates relating to asbestos exposures.

So, why does the UK use an indicator known not be safe?

When the HSE clearance indicator was introduced 36 years ago, it reflected the limitations of what the industry could test asbestos ambient levels to.

During the past 36 years there have been major developments in the field of testing and inspection of airborne asbestos fibres, including the development of Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) achieving lower limits of detection to 0.0005 f/ml.

So what should we be doing to ensure we aren’t missing the mark when it comes to asbestos management within our educational facilities?

The issue is clear. Despite the availability of good science within the asbestos industry, duty holders and employers continue to opt for standard compliance, leaving room for long term, low level asbestos exposures.

We have the availability to apply good science ahead of the HSE regulations. As an industry we have the ability to redefine what it means to be compliant and protect the individuals within our buildings from the risks of low level asbestos exposure. By utilising good science and being proactive, our asbestos management practices can have impact and truly protect those at risk.

Want to know how to give your asbestos management practices impact?

The 8th October 2020 will mark the tenth anniversary of the Asbestos The Truth Conference. Asbestos Risk Management Consultants, National Asbestos Contract Managers, and asbestos industry leaders will be enabling delegates with the tools to implement an effective asbestos management system.

Moving away from exploring the reasons why duty holders should manage their asbestos risks, this year the conference will focus on not only how to manage asbestos but how to give your asbestos management activities impact through implementing best practices.

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